December 22, 2015
When the news broke in 1979 that Teresa of Calcutta would be that year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I was working on the staff of the late Allentown Diocese Bishop Joseph McShea. I remembered that she had written three letters to him in her own hand. The first was dated April 28, 1976, the day after her first visit to Allentown. I recall that the bishop said, "File it carefully. Someday it will be a relic." And so it is. Pope Francis announced a few days ago that he will proclaim her a saint, perhaps in a few months.
Each letter contained sentiments that reflected her own loveliness. "I am sure," one ends, "your people will be very happy to know they share their love for God in a living action of love for Jesus in the distressing disguise of the Poor.
I read her letters several times, until something jumped off the pages. In two of the letters, she used the phrases "the Poor," "our Poor and "God's Poor" – five times. Each time, she capitalized Poor. She didn't simply pity the Poor. She had a sacred reverence and respect for the individual person. In her eyes, the Poor never lost their God-given dignity.
But who knows? It may have just been pious punctuation, the way some always capitalize priest, church or archdeacon.
In any event, the Nobel Peace Prize citation included: "The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have at her hands received compassion without condescension."
Who would have expected, however, that for the most part of her last 50 years Saint Teresa of Calcutta, despite her work for Jesus and her capitalized Poor, despite her public writings, she would have felt an almost complete absence of God?
Privately, she experienced doubts and struggles over her religious beliefs. During those years "she felt no presence of God whatsoever … neither in her heart or in the eucharist" as put by her postulator Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk.
She expressed serious doubts about God's existence and pain over her lack of faith: "Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."
I have found it strange that some have written paragraphs to water this down, just as some have written and preached to say that when Jesus said from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," he didn't really mean the words he cried out.
As I write, I have no ending for this "sermon." Perhaps later. Perhaps never. Perhaps, let people have their pain; don't discount it. Perhaps what Saint Teresa of Calcutta experienced is simply part of the mysterious relationship God has invited us into. Tread lightly.